The Philosopher and the Plumber
Posted by Jerry on July 9, 2007
“Ludwig Wittgenstein was by universal agreement one of the greatest and one of the most influential philosophers of the twentieth century. There, however, the agreement stops. The question of how to read him is one that has excited a great deal of controversy ever since his first book [and the only one by him in his lifetime] was published in 1921. There is no consensus on how that book should be interpreted, or how his later work, Philosophical Investigations, ought to be read, or again on the extent to which the later work repudiates the earlier.”
So begins the introduction by Ray Monk on How to Read Wittgenstein. In essence, what Monk is admitting–perhaps unwittingly–is that there is universal agreement in the philosophical community that Wittgenstein was one of the greatest philosophers of the time; however, no one really knows why.
Indeed, one can draw an implied allusion from the above quote that this enigma–this elusive and unknown reason for why Wittgenstein’s work might be terribly important–is precisely the reason why he is considered the greatest philosopher of the time. Since we cannot understand or agree on what his position was, surely it must be something very important!
This attitude bears not too surprising parallels with the trends observed in post-modernist art, which, in general timeline, accompanies the height of Wittgenstinian scholarship, logical positivism, and linguistic analysis in philosophy.
In the post-modernist school of alleged art, the most bizarre, inexplicable, mystical, enigmatic, and even nonsensical creations carry the aura of high art and brands its creator as a ground-breaking artist. In other words, the more inaccessible a certain work is to human reason and human means of cognition, the more highly is the creator of the work praised (as an example, consider Ulyssses by James Joyce).
Throughout the book on Wittgenstein, Monk draws out numerous, explicit contradictions and paradoxes in Wittgenstein’s works–some littered within the same pages of the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus. And yet, instead of properly regarding these contradictions as the result of sloppy thinking, false premises, lack of clarity, and almost no knowledge of philosophy (after all, by his own admission, Wittgenstein was almost completely ignorant of the works of great philosophers of the past), Monk–along with other scholars on Wittgenstein–are insistent in delving into the paradoxes of his book as enigmas that were perhaps “consciously designed to elude comprehension.”
Wittgenstein admits that his work will not be easily understood, but even goes a step further and says that it cannot be understood because, in attempting to speak about philosophy, his work is nonsense. Nothing can be said or expressed in propositions about philosophy, aesthetics, religion, ethics, etc. Therefore, he says, “the book is an attempt to express what cannot be expressed, and, therefore, nonsense.”
According to Wittgenstein, the “strict” and “right method” of doing philosophy is to say nothing other than what can be said, “i.e., the propositions of natural science, something that has nothing to do with philosophy.” In other words, “all philosophical propositions are nonsense,” and “whereof one cannot speak thereof one must remain silent.”
Having said that, he then proceeds to write a book about philosophy and ethics, allegedly claiming to convey “unassailable truths” contained in the nonsense of his expressed propositions.
Wittgenstein says that if the reader does not already have an implicit understanding of the same views that he is attempting to convey in the book, then there can be no hope for new understanding:
“This book will perhaps only be understood by those who have themselves already thought the thoughts which are expressed in it — or similar thoughts.”
Further, in attempting to clarify the manner in which his book should be read and interpreted, he provides an analogy:
“[Anyone] who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them–as steps–to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)”
However, I would argue that his analogy is off-target in a very crucial respect. According to him, one would simply have to “throw away the ladder” once he has climbed up beyond them; in truth, however, even that presupposes a meaningful identification of the purpose of a ladder. To be consistent in the analogy, one must properly claim that even the concept of a ladder is nonsense, unspeakable, and unidentifiable! Then, “throwing away the ladder” is out of the question; indeed, it is nonsense! 🙂
By banishing the whole of philosophy (along with art, aesthetics, religion, and other fields) to the realm of nonsense and the unspeakable, Wittgenstein had effectively invalidated the function of philosophical propositions by alleging that nothing meaningful can ever be expressed by them.
Now, all of this reminds me of Ayn Rand’s brilliant observation of what philosophers like Wittgenstein and the others he spawned tried to accomplish. Through the character of Hugh Akston–the philosopher in Atlas Shrugged–Rand employs her characteristic style of reduction to clarity when she says:
People would not employ a plumber who’d attempt to prove his professional excellence by asserting that there’s no such thing as plumbing—but, apparently, the same standards of caution are not considered necessary in regard to philosophy.